Artwork Made from Old Bananas Shows Value Is Subjective

Artwork Made from Old Bananas Shows Value Is Subjective

12/11/2019Ryan McMaken

Last week, Miami art gallery Art Basel sold, for $120,000, a piece of art composed of a banana duct taped to a wall. At least one other identical piece sold for a similar amount. A third piece was priced at $150,000. The banana used in the display is a real banana, and on Saturday, a performance artist named David Datuna ate some of it.

Datuna's stunt merely illustrated what everyone should have already known: the value of the artwork had almost nothing to do with the banana itself. Its value came not from the amount of labor that went into it or from the cost of the physical materials involved. A spokeswoman for the museum summed up the real source of the item's value, noting, “He [Datuna] did not destroy the artwork. The banana is the idea.

In other words, the people who purchased the art weren't actually purchasing a banana and tape. The person who purchased the art was buying the opportunity to communicate to peers that he or she was rich enough to throw around $120,000 on a work of art that would soon cease to exist. This was a transaction that involved purchasing status in exchange for money. The banana was only a tiny part of the exchange.

Moreover, the transaction offered the opportunity for the gallery, the art seller, and the art buyer to all further increase their status by being the topic of discussion in countless news articles and discussions in social media. As was surely anticipated by the artists and everyone else in the banana sale, the media could be counted on to act as if this art was something new, outrageous, or exciting. "Art world gone mad," the New York Post announced on its front page. Hundreds of thousands of commentators in various social media forums chimed in to comment on the matter.

One wonders, however, how many times this shtick can be repeated over and over until people lose interest. Apparently: many times. After all, this sort of art is not a new thing. For decades, avant-garde artists have been using garbage and other found objects to create art. And people with a lot of disposable income have been willing to pay a lot of money for it. It's all basically an inside joke among rich people. And regular people have the same reaction over and over again.

But there's absolutely nothing at all that's shocking, confusing, or incomprehensible from the point of view of sound economics. Transactions like these should only surprise us if we're still in the thrall of faulty theories of value, such as the idea that goods and services are valued based on how much labor and materials went into them. That's not true of any good or service. And it's certainly not true of art.

Is It Garbage or Is It Art?

In fact, two identical items can be valued in two completely different ways simply if the context and description of the objects changes.

According to the Daily Mail, a 2016 study suggests that people value ordinary objects differently depending on what they are told about the objects: "According to the new research, being told that something is art automatically changes our response to it, both on a neural and a behavioural level."

In this case, researchers in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, told subjects to rate how they valued objects in photographs. When told that those objects were "art" people valued them differently. 

In other words, the perceived value of objects could change without any additional labor being added to them, and without any physical changes at all. 

The value, it seems, is determined by the viewer, and we're reminded of Carl Menger's trailblazing observations about value

Value is a judgment economizing men make about the importance of the goods at their disposal for the maintenance of their lives and well-being. Hence value does not exist outside the consciousness of men.

One moment the viewer may think he's looking at garbage, which he has likely learned is of little value. When told that said junk is really "art," the entire situation changes. (Of course, we would need to see their preferences put into real action via economic exchange to know their preferences for sure.)

The change, as both Menger and Mises understood it, is brought about not by changes to the object itself, but by changes in context and in the subjective valuation of the viewer. 

A glass of water's value in a parched desert is different from that of a glass next to a clean river. Indeed, a glass of water displayed in a museum as art — as in the case of Michael Craig-Martin's "An Oak Tree" — is different from water found in both deserts and along rivers. Similarly, the value of a urinal displayed in a museum as art — as with Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" — is different from a physically identical urinal in a restroom. 

The Daily Mail article attempts to tie the researchers' observations to the theories of Immanuel Kant on aesthetics. But, one need know nothing about aesthetics at all to see how this study simply shows us something about economic value: it is, to paraphrase Menger, found in the "consciousness of men." 

And it is largely due to this fact that centrally planning an economy is so impossible. How can a central planner account for enormous changes in perceived value based on little more than being told something is art? 

Is a glass of water best utilized on a shelf in a museum, or is it best used for drinking? Maybe water is best used for hydroelectric power? Exactly how much should be used for each purpose? 

When discussing the problems of economic calculation in socialism, Mises observed that without the price system, there simply is no way to say that a specific amount of water is best used for drinking instead of being used for modern-art displays. Nor is the fact that people need water for drinking the key to determining the value of water. (See the diamond-water paradox.)

In a functioning market, consumers will engage in exchanges involving water in a way that reflects how much they prefer each use of water to other uses. At some moments, some consumers may prefer to drink it. At other moments, they may prefer to water plants with it. At still other moments, they may want to contemplate an art display composed of little more than a glass of water. The price of water at each time and place will reflect these activities. 

Without these price signals, attempting to create a central plan for how each ounce of water should be used is an impossible task.

Do we need to know why people change their views of object when told they are art? We do not. Indeed, were he here, Mises would perhaps be among the first to remind us that economics need not tell us the mental processes that lead to people preferring different uses for different objects, although we can certainly hazard a guess. It's unlikely that the buyer of the taped banana bought it because he or she planned to eat it.

But even if we are wrong about the buyer's motivation, the fact remains that the buyer valued the banana at $120,000 for some reason — and the value was subjective to the buyer.

Similarly, we can't know for sure why each individual values water for drinking over "art water" or vice versa. And a government planner or regulator — it should be noted — can't know this either.

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Could Trump's Next Fed Chair Be A "Goldbug?"

01/17/2020Tho Bishop

This week, Donald Trump formally nominated Judy Shelton and Christopher Waller for vacant governorships on the Federal Reserve. Waller, the Vice President of the Richmond Fed, is widely viewed as a standard Fed nominee with the reputation of being a "dove" who has criticized recent interest rate hikes.

It is Judy Shelton who is particularly interesting.

A former campaign adviser for Trump, Shelton has been a vocal Fed critic who has praised the gold standard in the past. While she has recently advocated for lower interest rates, she has also been a critic of the Fed's policy of paying interest on excess reserves that has become a key policy tool since 2008. Shelton's nomination is also interesting  due to her background standing in stark contrast to most of her colleagues. 

As Joseph Salerno has noted:

The good news is that Ms. Shelton is not a technically trained academic economist, indoctrinated in the prevailing orthodoxy. She holds a doctorate in business administration from the University of Utah and has spent most of her career in the world of free-market policy think tanks, including stints at the Hoover Institute and the Atlas Network. She also writes refreshingly and articulately in favor of the gold standard, or some version of it.

The bad news is that she leans heavily toward supply-side economics, which is deeply flawed on monetary policy. Like most supply-siders, the position she advocates may be summed up in the motto, “I favor sound money—and plenty of it.”

Still, though by no means an Austrian, Shelton's voice on the Fed would create some much needed ideological diversity to the central bank.

In reacting to an interview with Ms. Shelton last June, Jeff Deist wrote:

Her comments represent the most substantive attack on the Fed, and central banking generally, by any potential nominee to the Fed board in recent history. She not only challenges how Jerome Powell and Fed officials conduct monetary policy, but whether they can conduct it competently at all....

So Shelton doesn't want to End the Fed. But in the parlance of woke America, she's an "ally." Recognizing the limits of central bank omniscience, and challenging its benevolence, are important first steps on the road to redeeming our money and our economy. 

In fact, it was precisely these unorthodox views that make her nomination a less-than-sure thing, even with a Republican-controlled Congress.  As Bob Murphy has noted, her competency in financial history has made her the target of criticism from establishment powers on both left and right. Particularly of issue is comments made by Republican Senators, often offering criticism with intellectual depth on par with their colleague Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. For example, when asked about Shelton's views on gold, Senator Richard Shelby, the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, could only offer:

The gold standard would probably shatter a lot of people’s dreams around the world right now...There was a reason to get off of it.

The fact that the administration insisted on nominating Shelton, in spite of the public concerns, demonstrates a certain level of confidence that her nomination will not be shot down. 

What's particularly interesting is that CNBC notes that there has been speculation that Shelton could be a potential for Jerome Powell if Trump is still in office at the end of the Fed chair's term in 2022. If so, that would bring someone who the Wall Street Journal described as a "goldbug" to the office of America's top central banker.

Of course, as Alan Greenspan's tenure showed, that may not actually mean much.

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US to Iraq: "Vote All You Want; We’re Not Leaving!"

01/15/2020Ron Paul

President Trump’s decision earlier this month to assassinate Iran’s top military general on Iraqi soil — over the objection of the Iraqi government — has damaged the US relationship with its "ally" Iraq and set the region on the brink of war. Iran’s measured response — a few missiles fired on an Iraqi base after advance warning was given — is the only reason the US is not mired in another Middle East war.

Trump said his decision to assassinate General Qassim Soleimani was intended to prevent a war, not start a war. But no one in his right mind would think that killing another country’s top military leader would not leave that country annoyed, to say the least. Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) said that the Trump Administration’s briefing to Congress on its evidence to back claims that Soleimani was about to launch attacks against the US was among the worst briefings they’d ever attended.

After initially claiming that Soleimani had to be taken out immediately because of "imminent" attacks he was launching against the US, Trump Administration officials including Secretary of State Pompeo and Defense Secretary Esper have been busy walking back those claims. Esper claimed over the weekend that he had not seen the intelligence suggesting an attack on US embassies was in the works. If the Secretary of Defense did not see the intelligence, then who did?

No doubt the Iraqi leadership recognized these kinds of deceptions: the same kinds of lies were used to push the US into attacking their own country in 2003. So it should not have come as a big surprise that the Iraqi government met last week and voted for all foreign military personnel to leave Iraqi soil.

Then a funny thing happened when the Iraqi prime minister attempted to communicate to the US government the will of the Iraqi people through their democratically elected officials. On Thursday Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi phoned Pompeo to urgently request that Washington enact a US troop "withdrawal mechanism" in Iraq. American troops are in Iraq by invitation of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi government had just voted to revoke that invitation.

The State Department responded with a statement titled "The US Continued Partnership with Iraq," in which it essentially said that the US would not abide by the request of its Iraqi partners because the US military is a "force for good" in the Middle East and that as such it is "our right" to maintain "appropriate force posture” in the region.

The US invaded Iraq based on Bush administration lies, and a million Iraqis died as a result. Later, President Obama ramped up the drone program and also backed al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists to overthrow the secular Syrian government. Obama also attacked Libya based on lies, leaving the country totally destroyed. Trump is assassinating foreign officials and threatening destruction of Iran.

And the State Department calls that a "force for good"?

The United States can be a true force for good, however. End the military occupation of the Middle East, end foreign military aid, stop using the CIA to overthrow governments. Allow Americans to travel and do business in any country they wish. Lead by example and demonstrate how free markets and peace benefit all. A "force for good" means not forcing others to bow to your will.

Reprinted with permission from the Ron Paul Institute.

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A Lawless Political Assassination

“America … goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” 

– President John Quincy Adams (1767–1848)

Last week, President Donald Trump ordered the US military to invade a then friendly country without the knowledge or consent of its government and assassinate a visiting foreign government official. The victim was the head of Iran’s military and intelligence. The formerly friendly country is Iraq. The killing of the general and his companions was carried out by the use of an unmanned drone. The general was not engaged in an act of violence at the time he was killed, nor were any of his companions. They were driving on a public highway in a van.

The president’s supporters have argued that the general’s death was revenge for Americans and others killed by the general’s troops and surrogates. Trump has argued, more importantly, that he ordered the general’s death because of what evil the general might order his own troops and surrogates to carry out in the future.

Can the president legally kill a person not engaged in an act of violence because of what the person might do in the future? In a word: no.  

Here is the backstory.

The president has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution. The Constitution provides only two means for the federal government to kill a human being. The first is pursuant to a declaration of war, which only Congress can make. That permits the president to use the military to kill the troops of the government of the country against which war has been declared. Congress has not declared war on Iran.

The second way that the Constitution permits federal government killings is pursuant to due process. That means that the person to be killed is lawfully in custody, has been properly charged, lawfully tried and fairly convicted of a capital crime, and that the conviction has been upheld on appeal.

Can the president kill foreign military personnel and claim the justification of self-defense? The laws of war permit him to do that, but self-defense — actually, defense of the country — only comes into play when the foreign military personnel are physically engaged in killing Americans or are certainly about to do so. That justification only applies — the law here is six hundred years old and has been consistently applied — when force is imminent and certain.

Were imminence and certainty not the requirement, then nothing would prevent a president from slaying any monster he chose simply based on a fear that the monster might someday strike. Such a state of affairs is contrary to two presidential executive orders, one issued by President Gerald R. Ford and the other by President Ronald Reagan, and neither negated by Trump. Such a territorial invasion and killing also violate the United Nations Charter — a treaty that prohibits unlawful invasions of member nations’ territories and killings of their officials outside of a lawful and UN approved declaration of war.

Roaming the world looking for monsters to slay not only violates long-standing principles of American domestic and international law, but also it violates basic Judeo-Christian moral principles, which teach that the end does not justify the means and that might does not make right.

Think about it. If the American president can kill an Iranian government official in Iraq because of fear of what he might do — without a declaration of war or any legal process — can the Chinese president kill a Mexican government official visiting in Texas or an American intelligence agent encouraging revolution in Venezuela for fear of what they might do?

This is not a fanciful or academic argument. It not only goes to the fidelity to the rule of law that we require of our leaders in order to maintain personal liberty and limited government, it also goes to our safety. We have laws to prevent wanton killings, lest killers turn on us.

In Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons,” Sir Thomas More argues with his son-in-law, William Roper, about the extent of the law’s protections of those universally recognized as evil. Roper says that he would cut down all the laws in England to get rid of the Devil.

More counters that even the Devil is entitled to the benefits of the law. Then he hurls this zinger:

And, when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you? — ?where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast? — ?man’s laws, not God’s? — ?and, if you cut them down? — ?and you’re just the man to do it? — ?d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

More crystalized the dangers of those who — like Trump — take the law into their own hands for the sake of expedience or to rid the world of a monster. Without law, how does one decide what monsters should go and what monsters may stay?

When President Obama used drones to kill peaceful uncharged Americans in Yemen, candidate Donald Trump condemned that behavior. He offered that as president, he would bring the troops home, stop the nation building, quit being the world’s police force, and end the endless wars. Instead, his act of state terrorism has succeeded in doing what the general he killed could never do while alive. Trump has united the Iranian people behind their fanatical government, and he has caused the Iraqi government to kick out all American troops — troops that had no lawful or moral basis for being there in the first place and whose numbers have only increased.

Trump cut down the laws to get to the Devil. Whom will he kill next?

Reprinted from LewRockwell.com.

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How the US Wages War to Prop up the Dollar

01/08/2020Ryan McMaken

At Counterpunch, Michael Hudson has penned an important article that outlines the important connections between US foreign policy, oil, and the US dollar.

In short, US foreign policy is geared very much toward controlling oil resources as part of a larger strategy to prop up the US dollar. Hudson writes:

The assassination was intended to escalate America’s presence in Iraq to keep control of the region’s oil reserves, and to back Saudi Arabia’s Wahabi troops (Isis, Al Quaeda in Iraq, Al Nusra and other divisions of what are actually America’s foreign legion) to support U.S. control of Near Eastern oil as a buttress of the U.S. dollar. That remains the key to understanding this policy, and why it is in the process of escalating, not dying down.

The actual context for the neocon’s action was the balance of payments, and the role of oil and energy as a long-term lever of American diplomacy.

Basically, the US's propensity for driving up massive budget deficits has created a need for immense amounts of deficit spending. This can be handled through selling lots of government debt, or through monetizing the debt. But what if there isn't enough global demand for US debt? That would mean the US would have to pay more interest on its debt. Or, the US could monetize the debt through the central bank. But that might cause the value of the dollar to crash. So, the US regime realized that it must find ways to prevent the glut of dollars and debt from actually destroying the value of the dollar. Fortunately for the regime, this can be partly managed, it turns out, through foreign policy. Hudson continues:

The solution [to the problem of maintaining the demand for dollars] turned out to be to replace gold with U.S. Treasury securities (IOUs) as the basis of foreign central bank reserves. After 1971, foreign central banks had little option for what to do with their continuing dollar inflows except to recycle them to the U.S. economy by buying U.S. Treasury securities. The effect of U.S. foreign military spending thus did not undercut the dollar’s exchange rate, and did not even force the Treasury and Federal Reserve to raise interest rates to attract foreign exchange to offset the dollar outflows on military account. In fact, U.S. foreign military spending helped finance the domestic U.S. federal budget deficit.

An important piece of this strategy has been a continued alliance with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia maintains the world's largest capacity for oil production, and it was the largest single producer of crude for most of the period from the mid-1970s to 2018, when the US surpassed both Saudi Arabia and Russia.

But Saudi Arabia remains under the US thumb:

what Saudi Arabia does not save in dollarized assets with its oil-export earnings is spent on buying hundreds of billion of dollars of U.S. arms exports. This locks them into dependence on U.S. supply [of] replacement parts and repairs, and enables the United States to turn off Saudi military hardware at any point of time, in the event that the Saudis may try to act independently of U.S. foreign policy.

So maintaining the dollar as the world’s reserve currency became a mainstay of U.S. military spending. Foreign countries do not have to pay the Pentagon directly for this spending. They simply finance the U.S. Treasury and U.S. banking system.

However, any move away from this status quo tends to be met with paranoia and intervention from the US:

Fear of this development was a major reason why the United States moved against Libya, whose foreign reserves were held in gold, not dollars, and which was urging other African countries to follow suit in order to free themselves from “Dollar Diplomacy.” Hillary and Obama invaded, grabbed their gold supplies (we still have no idea who ended up with these billions of dollars' worth of gold) and destroyed Libya's government, its public education system, its public infrastructure …

But the role of oil-producing states goes beyond merely churning dollars and US debt to keep the dollar afloat. These countries also provide the foot soldiers for many US interventions in terms of terrorists and guerrilla fighters who can be used against US enemies. Hudson declares:

The Vietnam War showed that modern democracies cannot field armies for any major military conflict, because this would require a draft of its citizens. That would lead any government attempting such a draft to be voted out of power. And without troops, it is not possible to invade a country to take it over.

The corollary of this perception is that democracies have only two choices when it comes to military strategy: They can only wage airpower, bombing opponents; or they can create a foreign legion, that is, hire mercenaries or back foreign governments that provide this military service.

That is, the US regime can certainly get away with lots of bombing operations and other low-manpower operations. But anything that might require conscription is a political nonstarter. Hudson notes that Saudi Arabia, with its particularly rabid and extreme strain of Islam is quite useful:

Here once again Saudi Arabia plays a critical role, through its control of Wahabi Sunnis turned into terrorist jihadis willing to sabotage, bomb, assassinate, blow up and otherwise fight any target designated as an enemy of “Islam,” the euphemism for Saudi Arabia acting as U.S. client state. (Religion really is not the key; I know of no ISIS or similar Wahabi attack on Israeli targets.) The United States needs the Saudis to supply or finance Wahabi crazies. So in addition to playing a key role in the U.S. balance of payments by recycling its oil-export earnings into U.S. stocks, bonds and other investments, Saudi Arabia provides manpower by supporting the Wahabi members of America’s foreign legion, ISIS and Al-Nusra/Al-Qaeda. Terrorism has become the “democratic” mode of today's U.S. military policy.

Hudson also notes that the term "democracy," when used in the context of foreign policy, has very little to do with what a normal person would regard as democracy. Rather,

From the U.S. vantage point, what is a “democracy”? In today’s Orwellian vocabulary, it means any country supporting U.S. foreign policy. … The antonym to “democracy” is “terrorist.” That simply means a nation willing to fight to become independent from U.S. neoliberal democracy.

And this leads us to Iran. Hudson explains:

America’s hatred of Iran starts with its attempt to control its own oil production, exports and earnings. It goes back to 1953, when Mossadegh was overthrown because he wanted domestic sovereignty over Anglo-Persian oil. The CIA-MI6 coup replaced him with the pliant Shah, who imposed a police state to prevent Iranian independence from U.S. policy. The only physical places free from the police were the mosques. That made the Islamic Republic the path of least resistance to overthrowing the Shah and re-asserting Iranian sovereignty.

Thus, we got the Islamic revolution of 1979 which has led to forty years of Iran refusing to play ball in the US dollar maintenance regime that is demanded of other oil-producing nations in the Middle East.

The US is unlikely to let up on this effort so long as Iran continues to refuse to take orders from DC on these matters. It's true that the US can't do much about China and Russia. But Iran — unlike North Korea, which wisely secured nuclear arms for itself — remains an easy target because of its lack of nuclear capability.

Being a leftist, Hudson includes some unfortunate stuff about "neoliberalism," as if low taxes and freedom to trade were somehow driving global war. Hudson also concocts a theory about how this oil-dollar policy is driving global warming. That's a bit of a stretch, but the connection between foreign policy and the US dollar that he identifies is a key factor that tends to be almost universally ignored by the mainstream media. As China and Russia work ever harder to undermine the dollar and its geopolitical position, small countries like Iran will become even more important in the US's drive to maintain the dollar's status quo. But it remains to be seen how long the US can keep it going.

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Oil Prices Surge, but That's Fine for Some US Interest Groups

01/07/2020Ryan McMaken

Oil prices surged Tuesday night following the Iranian government's missile attack launched in response to the US's killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

According to CNBC, US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures surged 4.5 percent, or $2.83, to $65.53, their highest level since April.

In dollars per barrel, the WTI oil price has hovered around $55 per barrel over the past year, with the exception of a spike above $60 per barrel in May 2019.

oil

In inflation-adjusted terms, oil prices ended 2019 under $60 per barrel, and remained well below the prices experienced from 2005 to 2014 (WTI):

oil

The 2005 surge was due in part to the US's 2003 invasion of Iraq. The oil price exceeded $150 per barrel in mid-2008 and remained above $100 per barrel during much of the period from 2011 to 2014.

However, global oil prices have fallen significantly as US crude production has surged over the past decade thanks to fracking technology. The energy economy in the US was fundamentally changed by this shift, with the US becoming a net oil exporter over the past decade. According to an article last month in the Wall Street Journal, this was unexpected in an age when environmentalists and others lectured the public on "peak oil" and how energy was about to become outlandishly expensive. TheWSJ notes:

At the beginning of the decade, energy independence was still a joke for late-night television comedians,” says author Daniel Yergin, who is vice chairman at IHS Markit. “Turn around a decade later, and we’re here.”

So, when US foreign policy produced a shock due to its endless military interventions in the region, it meant a lot of pain for the taxpayers and voters in terms of energy prices. But, the added oil production of the past ten years

changed the relationship between crude prices and the U.S. economy. Whereas higher oil prices were once an unequivocal drag on the country’s economy, the impact is now more mixed. More-expensive crude still hurts consumers, but it is an economic boon to the country’s revived oil-producing regions, partially offsetting the impacts.

“Oil prices go up — Texas wins, North Dakota wins, New Mexico, Oklahoma,” says University of Chicago economist Ryan Kellogg.

If oil prices remain at a sustained high due to a war with Iran, this would mean a higher cost of living for most Americans, but it could help certain regions and populations within the US. Oil-producing states like Texas and Oklahoma — states that just happen to contain many of the current administration's core supporters — would benefit.

By pointing this out, I'm not claiming President Trump is deliberately trying to drive up oil prices to benefit certain constituents. But the current domestic political realities do mean that the president is unlikely to suffer as much from high oil prices as he might have been in previous decades.

Moreover, many of the downsides of higher oil prices will remain unseen by the public.

For example, fracking requires a substantial amount of resources to be profitable, including water, manpower, and financing.

Indeed, fracking is expensive, to the point that many investors have begun to doubt its profitability in recent years. This, in turn, has led to cutbacks and layoffs

While that's a bad thing for those employed in that industry, a decline in investment and resource allocation devoted to fracking means that the cost of financing, water, and manpower for other industries goes down, meaning that they can expand.

If oil prices go back up, we'll likely hear about how this is leading to job gains in the energy economy. But the downside of that is significant for other industries. Naturally, rising energy prices mean, well, higher energy prices for businesses. But they will also mean higher prices for all those factors that go into US oil production. War-driven increases in energy prices are likely to generally drive up the cost of doing business.

This, of course, is likely to be in addition to the hundreds of billions — or possibly trillions of dollars — necessary to prosecute yet another Middle Eastern war.

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War Has Become Another Frivolous Partisan Issue

01/06/2020Tho Bishop

The world continues to process last week's missile strike killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani as President Donald Trump continues to rattle his favorite saber, Twitter, against threats of Iranian retaliation. Already the international response to Trump's military escalation, a decision categorized as “the most extreme response” by American military officials, has been strong. In its aftermath, members of the Iraqi parliament have called for the American military to be evicted from the country, while Europe and other traditional American allies have cautioned against any further escalation from the US.

Back at home, the domestic response has been predictable. Trump's actions have been largely defended by his party, and criticized by his opposition and a series of mealymouthed legal analysis from “experts” about the constitutionality of the attacks. The NPC-like script in responding to the attacks has been so on the nose that Vice President Mike Pence even tried to tie Soleimani to September 11 in a move that must have made Trump's attorney and frequent gaffe machine, Rudy Giuliani, proud.

While the return of the antiwar left is a refreshing change of pace from the Democrats' recent maneuvering of the party of military action against Russia and Syria, the beltway response is most useful in highlighting how unseriously America's capital takes the single most important matter in government: when and how to wage war.

After all, the same Democrats that have railed against Trump's “mental instability” and “temperament” have dutifully signed on to not only the president's military budgets, but his reauthorization of programs such as the Patriot Act. For years, the American left has been far more interested in disarming American citizens than it has been in restraining the executive branch's ability to wage war.

It is those same legal precedents established by President Barack Obama and passionately defended by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that bar the majority of the president's opposition from any meaningful and consistent argument against the legality of the Soleimani strike. 

Similarly, the partisan hypocrisy from Republican cheerleaders is highlighted by their own opposition to Barack Obama's flirtation with escalating military conflict in Syria. With the exception of the most hawkish of Republican neocons, Republican leadership vocally criticized the idea of further expanding yet another military front. In the words of Senate leader Mitch McConnell:

A vital national security risk is clearly not at play, there are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria … Either we will strike targets that threaten the stability of the regime — something the President says he does not intend to do — or we will execute a strike so narrow as to be a mere demonstration.

Will McConnell voice similar questions about the long term strategy in Iran, particularly in light of President Trump's post-strike statement that the attack was to “stop a war [not start one]”?

Of course not, because Congress has long since conceded its authority over war to the executive branch, and few congressmen are interested, or competent, enough, to debate matters of national security seriously, from either a geopolitical or constitutional perspective.

Trump's announcement that his tweets serve as an official “notification to the United States Congress” that a future potential strike from Iran will be responded to “quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner,” is a fitting illustration of the serious extent to which Washington has relegated the limits of the commander in chief's ability to wage war.

If Democratic politicians were sincere in their concerns about Trump flexing the muscles Congress has given him, they would begin a concerted effort to restore the previous checks on war powers. A congressional declaration explicitly barring further action against Iran would be a start and a push by the House for the repeal of the fraudulent War Powers Act should be obvious starting points. If Democrats are truly concerned about Trump's “abuse of executive power,” which was the stated cause for House impeachment, then they should obviously be willing to make the case as it applies to Iran.

If Democrats fail to attempt any of these moves, it will be clear that their criticism of Trump's foreign policy is simply another example of toothless virtue signaling.

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Draft Concerns Crashed the Selective Service Site

Last week after the military drone strike in Iraq, an influx of young people went to the Selective Service website to find information about the draft. So much so that the draft website reportedly crashed from the surge. Google searches also are said to have increased by 900 percent for searches on “Is there going to be a draft.” While there has not been a draft since the Vietnam War, the reality is a draft could happen at any time and on the government's whim, as Rothbard pointed out:

Every youth is forced to register with the selective service system when he turns eighteen. He is compelled to carry his draft card at all times, and, at whatever time the federal government deems fit, he is seized by the authorities and inducted into the armed forces. There his body and will are no longer his own; he is subject to the dictates of the government, and he can be forced to kill and to place his own life in jeopardy if the authorities so decree. What else is involuntary servitude if not the draft?

Not only are you conscripted to serve your government even against your own free will, but if you refuse or fail to comply you could face a felony, as the Selective Service website points out:

Failing to register or comply with the Military Selective Service Act is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 or a prison term of up to five years, or a combination of both. Also, a person who knowingly counsels, aids, or abets another to fail to comply with the Act is subject to the same penalties.

The government asks our youth to sign up for the Selective Service on the day they become “adults.” Indeed, they are mandated at the age of eighteen to possibly be called to kill and murder in a war and possibly die themselves, and yet our government also believes our youth are not responsible enough to make the decision to not drink or smoke, since the smoking age has been raised to twenty-one years old. The simple truth is the government thinks that they own our bodies, and they will happily sit behind a desk in safety while they use you as cannon fodder.

However foul the Selective Service is, there is a far more detestable form once you reach the army. As Rothbard noted:

While conscription into the armed forces is a blatant and aggravated form of involuntary servitude, there is another, far more subtle and therefore less detectable form: the structure of the army itself. Consider this: in what other occupations in the country are there severe penalties, including prison and in some cases execution, for “desertion,” i.e., for quitting the particular employment? If someone quits General Motors, is he shot at sunrise?

So why do we subject our youth to our very real Hunger Games, where if their number is called they must fight to the death and may the odds be ever in their favor? Why in 2020 should the military be unable to operate free of involuntary slavery when it has been able to do so since July 1, 1973?

If history is our guide, we might expect a reinstatement of the draft to have profound societal effects. Consider the antiwar movement of the 1960s, during the previous “draft.” Now, consider the antiwar movement of today, during a time of an “all-volunteer” military, when military service is elective and by choice, when people don’t necessarily have skin in the game. Should the draft return, and young people face the prospect of mandatory service, what will the social repercussions be? Further division or people realizing they have very real skin in the game?

The government claims to be a representative government. Yet, how many of us disagree with its policies? How many not only disagree but find its policies and actions illegal? For them, it is bad enough that the government should commit crimes in their name; however, should a draft be enacted, now those same objecting individuals will face the prospect of becoming slaves to what they sincerely perceive to be a criminal enterprise, and thereby helping with their own labor to commit crimes against their own will.

In another article, I noted the use of conscientious objection and once again I ask, “Is Patriotism defined as blind obedience to governmental authority? Can saying ‘no’ be more heroic than saying ‘yes,’ when your conscience tells you it's wrong that the Government requires innocent blood on your hands?” If war is murder, what does this mean for a silently objecting person’s soul to become part of a killing machine rather than consciously objecting? Even if their job is removed from the front lines, at the end of the day the war rages, people are murdered, and they played their part contributing to the war/murder effort.

The obvious answer to all of this is, the draft should be abolished unfortunately, things won’t change until the public demands it. As Jeff Deist said not very long ago,

We need an anti-politics movement just as surely as we need an antiwar movement.

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Why I Don’t Trust Trump on Iran

01/06/2020Ron Paul

President Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, told us the US had to assassinate Major General Qassim Soleimani last week because he was planning “imminent attacks” on US citizens. I don’t believe them.

Why not? Because Trump and the neocons — like Pompeo — have been lying about Iran for the past three years in an effort to whip up enough support for a US attack. From the phony justification to get out of the Iran nuclear deal to blaming Yemen on Iran, to blaming Iran for an attack on Saudi oil facilities, the US administration has fed us a steady stream of lies for three years, because they are obsessed with Iran.

And before Trump’s obsession with attacking Iran, the past four US administrations lied ceaselessly to bring about wars on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Serbia, Somalia, and the list goes on.

At some point, when we’ve been lied to constantly and consistently for decades about a “threat” that we must “take out” with a military attack, there comes a time when we must assume they are lying until they provide rock-solid, irrefutable proof. Thus far they have provided nothing. So I don’t believe them.

President Trump has warned that his administration has already targeted fifty-two sites important to Iran and Iranian culture, and that the US will attack them if Iran retaliates for the assassination of General Soleimani. Because Iran has no capacity to attack the United States, Iran’s retaliation, if it comes, will likely be against US troops or US government officials stationed in or visiting the Middle East. I have a very easy solution for President Trump that will save the lives of American service-members and other US officials: just come home. There is absolutely no reason for US troops to be stationed throughout the Middle East to face increased risk of death for nothing.

In our Ron Paul Liberty Report last week, we observed that the US attack on a senior Iranian military officer on Iraqi soil — over the objection of the Iraq government — would serve to finally unite the Iraqi factions against the United States. And so it has: on Sunday the Iraqi parliament voted to expel US troops from Iraqi soil. It may have been a nonbinding resolution, but there is no mistaking the sentiment. US troops are not wanted, and they are increasingly in danger. So why not listen to the Iraqi parliament?

Bring our troops home, close the US embassy in Baghdad — a symbol of our aggression — and let the people of the Middle East solve their own problems. Maintain a strong defense to protect the United States, but end this neocon pipe dream of ruling the world from the barrel of a gun. It does not work. It makes us poorer and more vulnerable to attack. It makes the elites of Washington rich while leaving working- and middle-class America with the bill. It engenders hatred and a desire for revenge among those who have fallen victim to US interventionist foreign policy. And it results in millions of innocents being killed overseas.

There is no benefit to the United States to trying to run the world. Such a foreign policy brings only bankruptcy — moral and financial. Tell Congress and the administration that for America’s sake we demand the return of US troops from the Middle East!

Reprinted from the Ron Paul Institute with permission.

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"Closing the Gender Gap" at Any Cost Threatens the Academic Integrity of STEM Education

01/06/2020Atilla Sulker

The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a study which concluded that the grading policies for STEM classes contribute to the gender gap in the STEM field.

The study finds that STEM classes, on average, assign lower grades compared to non-STEM classes and that this tends to deter women enrolling. Women — who value higher grades more than men — are apparently put off by the lower average grades in STEM subjects. This is despite the fact that “women have higher grades in both STEM and non-STEM classes,” according to the study.

The study also shows that women are more likely to switch out of STEM than men. To increase female participation, the authors propose curving all courses to around a B. They estimate that this would increase female enrollment by 11.3 percent.

This may seem like a noble endeavor, but it is based on a faulty premise, and it will have adverse effects.

The authors aim to solve the problem of the gender gap in STEM, but they never explain why this should be a goal. Individuals have distinct abilities, and efforts to “equalize” their abilities and interests based on gender goes against this.

That men have lower attrition rates in STEM should not necessarily be seen as an advantage. For example, another study by Karen Clark, a doctoral candidate at Liberty University, shows that women are, on average, more persistent than men in staying in college. This may be, in part, because they are more likely to avoid high-attrition courses of study like STEM.

The effort to “close the gender gap” in STEM represents a preference for minority status over merit that deems a student’s performance less important than her femaleness. Yet it only hurts individuals to put them in a field in which they will be unhappy or perform poorly, regardless of gender. If an individual, no matter how gifted, is averse to the risk of possibly burning out and forgoing a good grade, then maybe STEM isn't the right field.

STEM curricula are deliberately rigorous, as their subjects are not easy, and bridges tend to collapse when things go wrong. This is why there are weed-out classes to discourage students from pursuing them lightly. In general, women earn higher marks, but students trying to maintain a high GPA — something women value more than men — might rather avoid such classes. There is no guarantee that in STEM subjects reasonable effort will earn one an A.

Thus, we should not mistake an individual’s willingness to work hard with fitness for STEM. Rather, it is their ability to cope with the possibility of burnout and lower grades, in addition to hard work, that is the better indicator. The National Bureau of Economic Research study clearly shows that men express this ability at a higher rate.

The authors’ view presents yet another dilemma. If we are to close the gender gap in STEM, why not also do so in other areas? What if the history, philosophy, and business departments also have this disparity? Why not intervene in every department, every class, and so on? This would create an endless continuum of administrative oversight and indifference to merit.

The authors would likely agree that such an approach would be too extreme, but this concession destroys their argument. The goal is to close the gender gap, but if this end is not pursued to the extreme, one group will still be “less equal” by their definition.

We should ask ourselves if we are really to throw out pure merit for the sake of an unbacked ideal like “We need more women in STEM.” We never seem to question why we pursue these ideals, or the many unseen effects of pursuing such policies. We just accept them as sacred.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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Why It's Important to Know Something about Foreign Affairs

01/03/2020Ryan McMaken

During the 2016 race, presidential candidate Gary Johnson was asked what action he would take in response to the refugee problem created by the destruction of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

In response, Johnson asked, "What is Aleppo?" Once prompted with enough reminders, Johnson was finally able to answer the question.

The exchange in itself, of course, was not sufficient to prove Johnson didn't know anything about the situation in Syria. In fact, Johnson gave a reasonably coherent answer about the Syrian situation once he figured out Aleppo is a Syrian city that at the time was central to the civil war in Syria.

Johnson's critics, however, used the gaffe to claim Johnson was clueless on foreign policy and ought to be disqualified as a viable candidate.

Johnson was never able to demonstrate any real competence on the issue for the duration of the campaign. In fact, he claimed it was a virtue to not know much about foreign policy:

"You know what? The fact that somebody can dot the Is and cross the Ts on a foreign leader or a geographic location, that then allows them to put our military in harm’s way," Johnson argued.

"We wonder why our men in service and women suffer from PTSD in the first place," he continued. "We elect people who can dot the Is and cross the Ts on these names and geographic locations as opposed to the underlying philosophy, which is, let’s stop getting involved in these regime changes."

Unfortunately, many of Johnson's defenders, plus many anti-interventionist libertarians, flocked to Johnson's defense, claiming it is indeed a good thing to not know anything about foreign policy or foreign regimes. This is a terrible take on foreign policy ignorance.

First of all, it's not apparent that ignorance of foreign policy necessarily leads one toward anti-interventionism. One example of this is the infamous poll showing that nearly one-third of Republican primary voters favored bombing "Agrabah" the fictional city featured in Aladdin. Apparently, many voters were willing to bomb a city even though they couldn't possibly have known anything about the city's actual location or the threat its residents posed. Now, it's possible this poll is bogus, but its plausibility suggests there is no reason to just assume that ignorance of foreigners leads one to assume they ought to be left alone. In fact, one 2018 study found that Americans who could locate North Korea on a map were more likely to support diplomacy than those who were ignorant of North Korea's location.  So, while some people who know nothing abou the wider world are inclined to leave the wider world alone, an ignoramus might also  just as easily come to the conclusion that most foreigners are barbarians in need of a good bombing. The latter idea is certainly the message most voters get in the media, day in and day out.

The idea that it's a good thing to not care about foreign countries would be fine if we lived in a world with no resident foreign-policy establishment in Washington. But that's not the world we live in.

One could imagine what that might look like, though: the new president arrives in DC, and he's the sole decision-maker in foreign policy. But since this new president doesn't care about foreign policy and knows nothing about it, American foreign policy wonks, military generals, and CIA agents all just sit on their hands, waiting for the president to give them something to do. But since the new president never gives these bureaucrats something to do, the foreign policy establishment all resigns and gets real jobs. The end.

In the real world, though, when the president arrives in Washington, he's confronted with a huge cadre of foreign policy interventionists who want more war, more bombing, more invasions, and more sanctions against "rogue" foreign regimes. These people leak info to the press designed to stir up aggression against foreign states. Former generals and former CIA agents go on TV to talk up the need for another war. Members of Congress and various party hacks demand various interventions to suit their own ideology and the ideology of their constituents.

In order to counter this constant agitation for war, an anti-interventionist president would need to be able to explain to both the public and to policymakers why such-and-such invasion or such-and-such sanctions are a bad idea. Were this president to simply shrug and say, "Golly, I never heard of Syria before," agitators for more war and sanctions would be more likely to win over public opinion. And then the interventionists would be able to apply political pressure to the president until he changes his mind for either principled or cynical reasons.

After all, if the president doesn't know anything about the world outside the US, how does he know the interventionists are wrong? An ignorant man is an easily manipulated one.

This, of course, is why Ron Paul always remained very well informed on public policy and knew a lot about foreign affairs. Even his enemies admitted this. For example, in a column for The Hill, Brent Budowsky praised Paul's knowledge in order to condemn Johnson's ignorance:

The former Republican congressman from Texas always added depth, insight and ideas to presidential politics. Sometimes I might agree with Dr. Paul, other times not, but he was always informed and knowledgeable.

Had he become president, Paul would have likely been able to provide a much-needed voice of reason to foreign policy while explaining why his positions were prudent, even in a world where foreign-policy hawks were constantly agitating for more war.

Moreover, a sound foreign policy for the US would require more than just doing nothing. It would require active attempts to undo the status quo: to withdraw troops, to sign peace treaties, and to engage in diplomacy rather than stick with the way things are. In the world we live in, this sort of thing requires a lot more than just insisting that the US "do nothing." It requires slashing military budgets, opposing military "experts," and reining in the intelligence agencies. To pull this off, one needs to be able to rout the interventionists both administratively and in the court of public opinion. Being clueless about foreign policy would be a rather odd method of pursuing this goal.

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